Category Archives: Television Reviews

IR Television Review: CATHERINE THE GREAT [HBO]

The last Russian woman of power changed the way the game was played. But in an era of patriarchy she pushed against the status quo while still maintaining a healthy appetite which in many circles. This is what has survived all the rumors oddly enough. In a day and age when Crimea has come under the aspect of the news again in terms of Russian perception as an important port city what Catherine The Great’s dexterity and at times forthrightness reflects in her early Ideas of giving up serfdom are quite forward thinking. While Alexander’s tendency plays into  the thrust of his grandmother’s ultimate plan, it is her life and the way she lived it that is dynamic but also fallible. The details of her former husband that met his fate for her to assume the throne is still mysterious but how she governs is not. This is the effective perspective of “Catherine The Great” which both administers her strengths but also her faults.

Helen Mirren, as she has done with many characters over the years, understands the aspect of women in power but also the tricks of ambiguity and antiquity and the problems it creates. As an aging actress this has provided her most telling performance perhaps since “The Queen”. She has had fun playing others but the aspect of loss and gain here but also a more mature relationship speaks to the essence of trust versus jealousy. This is something that completed encompasses her relationship with Potemkin whom she first becomes enamored with many years earlier as the mini-series seems to span a good 15-20 years.

Jason Clarke gives an interesting portrayal of Potemkin. The problem is that as the younger version where his young features currently still show, the character never fully vanishes. It is only as he grows more grizzled halfway through the miniseries that his characterization truly becomes rich. The mustache and gravelly deliver become more natural. There is a hurt but also a love in his devotion to Catherine despite his want to be on the battlefield versus being at the palace with Catherine. In a short span when he brings Crimea to her feet and she witnesses it as her domain, it becomes a very intimate story wide in its scope but personal in its impact.

There are other supporting characters that key into the proceedings. Richard Roxburgh plays one of her early lovers who basically pushes against her rule. He disappears in a haze which is never fully specific. Catherine’s Minister Of War Olaf who helped put her in power is an interesting dichotomy as his loyalty shifts and the story moves forward. The pathetic part of the story is Catherine’s son Paul who simply reminds Catherine of the err of his father’s ways, not necessarily that he would be a bad leader but Catherine senses something off in him, that gut instinct that tells her something her advisers can’t. The epilogue proves that.

Politics aside “Catherine The Great” is also an interesting diatribe in showing the essence of sexuality and the reality of power without pretense. One of the aspects that does reflect is the absence of Russian accents or even Russian actors. Granted this is a miniseries made by Sky and BBC in congruence with HBO but unless one was told it was Russia and Catherine The Great, it could quite frankly be any monarchy save for the performances of Mirren and Clarke.

“Catherine The Great” has the lushness and texture of most HBO series with a leading lady destined to receive said due praises for her work. But at its heart, it is a love story, power ratcheting though that it may be, that is engaging but also exceptional to the status quo that human nature does not change.

B

By Tim Wassberg

IR Television Review: MODERN LOVE [Amazon]

The essence of the romantic drama/comedy per se has been lost in recent years because of the disappearance of the mid-range picture. As a result, many of the wonderful character work actors can do without special effects sometimes can be lost. Often with most television as well, the writers are trying to get to the next narrative beat which is not wrong but sometimes sacrifices characters on the part of the story. That is why “Modern Love” throughout its entire 8 episode first season is so refreshing. It is unique and heartfelt stories but each, in their own way, uniquely theirs.

From the first episode about a girl alone in the city that shows her time through personal hardship with the help of simple love, , though platonic of her doorman, the episodes are poignant, perhaps schmaltzy but not overly so. It maintains the balance that “Maisel” does without the need to push her forward. These people’s lives are their own, tragic and beautiful though they may be.

Because the actors don’t have to be in all the episodes, it allows some great film actors who might not indulge in TV or simply like the idea of small ditty to shine. Actors like Sofia Boutella, and Caitlin McGee really shine as the series really gets the idea of missed opportunities but also the messiness of human behavior right without resulting overly on violence or sex as part of the storyline.

For example, Boutella’s segment in an interesting ramification on the notion of who she is and coming to terms with it in a simple way but it undeniably works in terms of the guy she unavoidably spends the night with. Dev Patel’s segment which also stars Catherine Keener as well as bits with Caitin McGee and Andy Garcia is one of the most poignant and some of the best understated acting all of them have done in years. Many of the other stories follow suit but the fact that many of them are based on a series of stories in the New York Times and by extension are all NY stories make it even more textured.

There are a million stories like that in the city, with undeniably many more to be told. Not all are conventional but all seem to hit interesting notes of reflection and dexterity without being too indicative of a message. Anne Hathaway’s segment seems tailor made for her and a little more fantastical than the others but its story and the way it is told lets her get closer the drama she could do but perhaps the breath is not there. Interstellar got her close but there was no comedy in there. She is able to show the highs and the lows in this character which is beautiful in so many ways.

The essence of marriage is explored in the segment starring John Slattery and Tina Fey. What makes this one sing is because they each have such a dynamic connection to NY, he with Mad Men, her with 30 Rock and SNL, that the essence of marriage falling away in a way in the heart of NY city and the isolation that you get from her, again shows what a show like this can allow certain people to do.

Later segments have a tome about daddy issues but also surrogate motherhood which require a little more narrative control so the ideas are more complex yet still shine in the end. If the first couple eps hook you then you are good to go. The progression of life is a big theme in the series especially how it comes to an end the first season. Love Actually is in many ways a good parallel because it is all brought together not because it needs to but it is that these people all exist in the same reality but only separated by blocks and social and work circles.

The opening credits says it all. Any good opening if done well can hook but this promotes nostalgia but also a sense of reality in the best way possible with a great location and inherent soulful acting to boot.

A-

By Tim Wassberg

IR TV Review: STAR TREK – SHORT TREKS (“The Trouble With Edward”) [CBS All Access]

The texture of “Short Treks” in the Star Trek Universe allows for those short vignettes that allow us to see perceptions into more of the lives of perhaps those that have continued on in the night. The first of this new season: “Q&A” examined Spock’s first day as an ensign on Captain Pike’s Enterprise. With the second entry: “The Trouble With Edward” we are treated to the genesis of what caused the Tribbles to become what they did. In its treatment of this lore, it is half human error and half problem solving gone wrong. Pike’s head science officer (played in a nice homage by Alita’s Rosa Salazar) is given the captain’s spot on her own science ship which has to deal with a famine/starvation situation on a planet on the edge of Klingon space.

Everything seems to go wrong mostly because of the crewman who creates the Tribble trouble in the first place because of his stubbornness, ego and slight lack of talent. Archer voice H. Jon Benjamin is a perfect foil in this way since he doesn’t mind playing the depreciation because it works as a form of satire. Salazar is good but she can be much more fluid an actress in a different situation than this small journey allows but it is great to see her being given the opportunity overall. Ultimately, “The Trouble With Edward” is a nice little tome within the pantheon and definitely brings to bear the reproducing situation of these animals, especially when it is a funneled as a food source. As usual, the human condition creates the problem against its best wishes. Plus it is good to see flaws since not every crewman is perfect. The added bonus after the credits also shows the humor that sometimes is not allowed to shine through in such a specific way on an episodic show per se.

B

By Tim Wassberg

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